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Clear links between multi-tasking, high stress and low performance.

Multi-tasking is not a sign of executive competence. Nobody appreciates a senior manager who forgets things, makes errors and is wastes his time. But these are the results of constantly multi-tasking.

The best way to see multi-tasking is as a myth, an illusion, a poor use of your time. There is more than enough evidence that multi-taskers create their own stress, for example here, here and here.

What scientists know
Look at the neuroscience. Start a task and your brain uses a large part at the front – the pre-frontal cortex. It gets you to focus and concentrate on what the task is. In simple language, your brain distinguishes between two types of task: simple and complex.

It helps to think of simple tasks – brushing your teeth or listening to the radio in the car – as programmed activities. We have done them so many times that become second nature.

Complex tasks require more thinking power, like emailing, talking on the phone, discussing how to solve a problem.

Here is what neuroscientists know from studying brain scans. Your brain can simultaneously process a simple task and a complex task. So brushing your teeth whilst listening to the radio is easy to do. So is singing along to Robbie Williams’ latest hit while driving to work. The first task is a simple, the second task is complex.

But you run into difficulty when you do two or more complex tasks at the same time. Multi-tasking on complex tasks has dramatic results for your effectiveness:

The big disadvantages of multi-tasking
1. You tend to forget one of the tasks – neuroscientists say this is very often the case when trying to juggle three or more tasks.
2. You make more mistakes – the number of mistakes is up to 300% higher.
3. It takes more time to switch between complex tasks – that is to stop one task and re-focus on another one.

One estimate is that as much as 40% of time is wasted by constantly multitasking.

Focus, Filter and Forget
It is much better to take these simple steps:

  • Focus. It’s faster to do one complex task at a time,
  • Filter out “the noise”, that is all the distractions. Block time. Use “sprints” or stand-ups instead of long sit-down meetings.
  • Concentrate on work while you are there, then…
  • …make time to forget about work when you can.

If you know somebody who bounces between emails, apps, face-to-face discussions and calls, do them a favour and tell them to stop. Don’t let them go on and on about the stress they have today. Tell them they are creating that stress, then help them to focus, filter and forget.

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